The Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper': It Was Twenty Years Ago Today… - Rolling Stone
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The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’: It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

The story behind the making of the landmark album

the Beatles, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Bandthe Beatles, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Album Cover For 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', 1967

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ wasn’t the Beatles’ best album. It wasn’t even the best album of 1967 – the year of astonishing debuts by Jimi Hendrix and the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons. As concept albums go, Sgt. Pepper seems thin compared with The Who Sell Out and altogether dubious when set next to Absolutely Free or We’re Only in It for the Money, the two Mothers of Invention LPs released in 1967. And as a piece of psychedelia, put up against Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the Beatles’ eighth album is pure tea and biscuits.

Nevertheless, twenty years later Sgt. Pepper still encapsulates its age – the good, the bad and the dopey – more evocatively than any other cultural dingus of the period. Flip it on the box (or the CD player now), and phantom pot smoke fills the air, lava lamps gurgle and burp in forgotten back rooms of the brain, and the synapses sizzle with imprinted memories of hallucinogenic ingestion. It may be dated, this soundtrack of the Summer of Love – surely more dated than any other Beatles album. But its very quaintness is a poignant reminder of the vanished pop values it embodies – values of love, community and musical progressivism – and the once young and adventurous pop audience that rushed to embrace them.

By 1967 the Beatles were perfectly positioned to make a Major Statement. In the four years since their arrival on the scene, they had evolved into the world’s most charismatically creative pop group. Even their earliest singles had introduced new chords and song structures into rock, and they were so prolific – and so endlessly inventive – that by 1965 the album had become their key artifact. Help! – released in August 1965 – was still essentially a collection of very good songs, but Rubber Soul, which appeared at the end of the year, offered a new refinement, a mood of reflective maturity that seemed to link many of its tracks. It also signaled a new sophistication in the studio, and by the time of the Beatles’ next LP, that sophistication had become incorporated into the fabric of their brilliance.

With its backward guitar tracks and tape-loop extravaganzas, Revolver, released in the summer of 1966, was a more adventurous pop record than anyone had previously attempted. It also confirmed the Beatles as recording-studio auteurs: they were unable (or unwilling) to perform any of the Revolver songs on their subsequent American tour, and when that tour ended, they decided never to play concerts again.

With the distraction of live performance eliminated from their lives, the Beatles were now free to really stretch out in the studio, to go in whatever creative directions their talents took them. Who knew, as 1966 wound toward a close, what wonders they might bring back?

The Sgt. Pepper sessions began on Friday, November 28th, 1966, when the Beatles assembled at the EMI recording complex at number 3, Abbey Road, in the London borough of St. John’s Wood, with their producer, George Martin, and their new engineer, Geoff Emerick. Martin had produced the Beatles from the beginning and by now had some claim, if anyone did, to being “the fifth Beatle.” Emerick, although only nineteen, had been on staff at EMI since 1962, the year the Beatles had been signed to the company’s Parlophone label. He had worked as Martin’s “tape op” (or second engineer) and had even engineered one previous Beatles song, “Tomorrow Never Knows” – the prophetically psychedelic final track on Revolver. Now – with Martin’s regular engineer, Norman Smith, departed to produce Pink Floyd – Emerick had been recruited to fill the engineering gap.

In the few weeks that remained before Christmas, the Beatles and their team recorded three new songs: “When I’m Sixty-four,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” The first of these was a characteristic piece of McCartneyesque music-hall pop, tarted up with a reed section comprising two clarinets and a bass clarinet. The latter two numbers, however, were something new. Both were inspired by childhood reminiscences of Liverpool, but each reflected the distinct personality of its composer. McCartney’s “Penny Lane,” which recalled the suburban street life around a Liverpool traffic intersection, was jaunty and affectionate, instantly appealing. “Strawberry Fields,” written by Lennon and alluding to a castlelike orphanage called Strawberry Field, was drearnier, trippier (it marked the Beatles’ first use of a Mellotron) and rather more remote in commercial appeal than “Penny Lane.” But both songs revealed wondrous new depths in the Beatles’ music.

“I was so knocked out with both ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane,'” Martin says now, “that I knew the Beatles were on a new wave. They’d shed a lot of the simplicity of even Revolver, which had been a bit more complicated than Rubber Soul. Now they were on a new plane.”

For Geoff Emerick, the two tracks “seemed to be one vast, giant step toward something that was better than we’d ever heard … into a new generation and a new time.”

By mid-january the monkees were topping the British charts with “I’m a Believer,” a new guitar sensation from America called Jimi Hendrix had erupted out of nowhere with a single called “Hey Joe,” and the Beatles, refreshed by a Christmas break, were back in the Abbey Road studios. By this point, EMI was anxious for a new Beatles single, and so it was decided to give the company “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane.” Both songs had been intended for the album, but as Martin recalls, he and Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, “had a campaign to make sure singles weren’t duplicated on albums. In those days people were very conscious of value for money. Of course, today that seems completely wrong – everybody wants the single on their album.” Thus “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” were effectively cut from the heart of the Pepper project when EMI released them as a double-A-side single on February 17th.

Shortage of material was never a problem for the Beatles, though, and by the end of March they had added five new tracks to “When I’m Sixty-four,” the only song remaining from their pre-Christmas sessions. The new titles were announced (or at least reported) as being “Meter Rita,” “A Day in the Life,” “Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning,” “She’s Leaving Home” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Blues.”

One of the first people outside the Beatles’ immediate orbit to hear any of this new music was Alan Livingston, the head of Capitol Records, the EMI subsidiary that released the Beatles’ records in the States. Livingston happened to be in London for an EMI board meeting and accepted an invitation to drop by the studio and hear what his most important act was up to. “They were doing playbacks when I walked in – ‘A Day in the Life,’ ” Livingston recalls. “I was not prepared at all. I said, ‘What is that? Who is that?’ I couldn’t believe it. I raised two feet off the floor.”

“A Day in the Life” was indeed a stunner – not that the other five tracks so far recorded were simple filler in any way. Each production was in some way – lyrically, harmonically, sonically – innovative. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about them, especially from the perspective of the tech-happy Eighties, is how playfully, even primitively, they were put together. There are no synthesizers on Sgt. Pepper, none of the harmonizers or sampling machines that dominate so much current pop music. The songs were recorded on what would be, by today’s standards, laughably crude four-track machines, of a sort not unlike the portable-studio decks now available to aspiring amateur producers for something like $500. Two of these four-track machines might be linked at times to record in sync, mixing down the original four tracks onto two tracks on the second machine and adding two new tracks of studio overdubs. This process might occasionally be repeated once again but, according to Martin, never more – the decay in tape quality would have been unacceptable. In terms of today’s technology – in which it is not unusual to hear records containing forty-eight tracks and more – the Sgt. Pepper sessions were strictly kiddy exercises. But the magic in the grooves was undeniable.

“Most of today’s studio technology is based on the things we used in those sessions,” says Geoff Emerick. “Flanging, phasing – that’s all based on what we used to do with just a variable-speed tape machine. We weren’t inundated with electronic boxes. It was a mechanical form.”

“We had to invent our own tools,” says George Martin, “rather like cave men. Therefore it was much more exciting. The coming together of Pepper was a kind of eruption of combined genius. It wasn’t just that John and Paul wrote some marvelous songs – they did, of course. But everybody sparked each other off.”

Even McCartney’s apparent primacy – he came up with the Sgt. Pepper concept and takes the lead vocal on the majority of the songs – is deceptive, according to Martin. “Paul was always more articulate than John about what he wanted – John would just talk airily about the kind of effect he wanted to get with a song. And Paul was always the person who would say, ‘Come on, fellows, let’s get moving.’ He would irritate the others sometimes with his apparent bossiness. But Paul appreciated John’s contribution on Pepper. In terms of quantity, it wasn’t great, but in terms of quality, it was enormous. And Paul knew that. There was a very good spirit at that time between all the Beatles and ourselves. We were all conscious that we were doing something that was great.”

Improvisation reigned at the Pepper sessions. To attain the wobbly piano sound on McCartney’s “Lovely Rita,” for example, Martin reached into his bag of “stock tricks” and came up with a piece of adhesive tape, which he applied to a tape-machine capstan to achieve a distorted recording. He then mixed that back in with the direct piano signal, creating an underwater effect that became a hallmark of psychedelia. For Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning,” Martin raided the EMI sound-effects library and orchestrated a symphony of barnyard-animal noises that built into a fox hunt, ending on a chicken squawk that suddenly, stardingly, turned into the opening electric-guitar note of the title-track reprise.

But the album’s real centerpiece, even midway through the sessions, was “A Day in the Life,” the only Beatles composition actually cobbled together from two completely separate songs – one by Lennon, the other (the bouncy middle section) by McCartney. “It was Paul’s idea to have the big orchestral buildup,” Martin says. “He was a bit naive in a way, because he said, ‘Let’s get a symphony orchestra in, and we’ll just tell them to play anything.’ I said, ‘You can’t tell ninety people just to play anything, because it wouldn’t sound very good.’ We actually had to organize the chaos.”

The budget-conscious Martin got McCartney to settle for half a symphony orchestra – forty-two musicians (the largest complement of outside musicians ever used on a Beatles record) – but agreed to McCartney’s whimsical suggestion that all the players wear evening dress to make them feel at home. The musicians were then compelled to create carefully calculated but chaotic swirls of sound to punctuate the track – no simple feat for players who had been trained to do exactly the opposite throughout their careers. But the Beatles laid on champagne and party hats and balloons and brought along such friends as Rolling Stone Mick Jagger and his consort, Marianne Faithfull, and the result was unlike anyththing previously heard in pop.

“It really grew into something great,” Martin says. “I think for me the most magical moment is, in fact, the beginning – the way the song emerges out of the reprise and cross-fades into the piano. It set up a mood. And John’s voice coming in then – ‘I heard the news today oh boy. . . .’ That still sends shivers down my spine.”

Equally memorable was the track’s conclusion, with Martin and all four Beatles seated in the studio at three pianos – an upright and two grands – all hitting the same chord simultaneously. As the sound naturally decayed, Geoff Emerick, in the control room, kept inching up the recording level so that the chord seemed to hover in the air for a pop eternity.

Only household pets, however, heard the dog whistles McCartney sneaked onto the side’s final run-out grooves. “We never record anything for animals,” Paul said.

By Mid-February the Beatles had already begun thinking about the cover of the album and had hired Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger to design the packaging. Posthuma and Koger were members of the Fool, a design consortium that had originated in Amsterdam and lately made a big splash in Swinging London. They had painted instruments for Cream and done design work for George Harrison and John Lennon. They were hip and happening, and it was decided they would be perfect to design the cover of Sgt. Pepper.

Robert Fraser, however, disagreed. Fraser, a friend of both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, ran an influential London art gallery that championed the work of British and American pop artists. He was convinced that the psychedelic stylings proffered by the Fool were a mere fad and would quickly become dated. He was predictably unhappy with the proposed Sgt. Pepper cover that Posthuma and Koger turned in and persuaded McCartney to reject it in favor of something more substantial by a “fine” artist.

Fraser then enlisted Peter Blake and his American wife, Jann Haworth, two artists who were regularly exhibited at his gallery. Out of the budget of 1500 pounds (about $4000 at the time) that Fraser had received from EMI to create the cover, he paid the pair a relatively paltry 200 pounds to do most of the work.

“The Beatles were halfway through recording,” Blake says, “and it had already been decided that the album would be called Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. And the concept was set – the idea of an actual concert, with an overture and the reprise at the end and various songs by various members of Sgt. Pepper‘s band. And I think they’d already had the uniforms made. So for the cover we talked about the fact that Sgt. Pepper‘s band might have just had a concert in the park and were posing for photographers. And my main idea was of a crowd behind them – which could really be a crowd of anybody, you know? Even fictitious people. I then made a list of people who could be in it Robert Fraser did, too. And we asked each of the Beatles to make a list. John and Paul both made quite long lists, and George made a list of gurus. Ringo didn’t suggest anybody. He just said, you know, ‘Whatever the other chaps say is fine.’ “

The final master list for the Sgt. Pepper cover ran to more than sixty figures, among them Karl Marx, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe and W.C. Fields. Lennon’s list included Mahatma Gandhi (eventually eliminated at the behest of EMI chief Sir Joseph Lock-wood, who feared offending a subcontinent full of record-buying Indians) and both Hitler and Jesus (dropped from the final lineup to avoid messy controversies). Blake and Haworth contributed such artists of their acquaintance as Richard Lindner and Richard Merkin, and Blake managed to sneak in three of his idols, singer Dion DiMucci, boxer Sonny Liston and child film star Bobby Breen.

Blake and Haworth next spent two weeks staging the cover shot at the Chelsea studio of photographer Michael Cooper. Images for each of the figures on the master list were tracked down in books and magazines, blown up to a standard size, mounted on boards, trimmed with a jigsaw, then hand-tinted, principally by Haworth. This crowd of heads was then arranged in descending rows against a blue backdrop. Blake also asked everyone to bring in “some of their favorite objects” for inclusion in the photo. Lennon contributed a tiny TV (“He thought television was an important factor at that point,” says Blake), a cloth snake and an antique stone bust of some anonymous Victorian, which Blake repainted. Blake added a small Indian doll, a Snow White figurine and, for a laugh, a large doll wearing a Rolling Stones T-shirt.

Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum was asked to lend its figures of the mop-top-era Beatles and of Sonny Liston, and arrangements were made with Clifton Nurseries, in west London, to deliver, at a specified date and time, a consignment of ornamental flowers to fill up the garden plot at the front of the set. McCartney rented horns for the Beatles to hold. A bass drum was acquired, and its two heads custom-painted with the Sgt. Pepper logo by a friend of Blake’s, an Australian artist named Joe Ephgrave. Finally the Beatles were called in to pose.

Unfortunately the result of all this meticulous preparation was, in the estimation of Blake and Haworth, something of a fiasco. First, the flowers – which had been forced in a hothouse to achieve peak bloom on the day scheduled for the photo session – had to be packed into refrigerators when the Beatles put the session back one day to allow them to finish some recording. And when the flowers did arrive, they weren’t at all the sort that Haworth had originally had in mind.

“They were dreadful hyacinths,” she says. “What we wanted were little tight rock plants, for solid color. What we got was forest hyacinths scattered all about and these funny little azaleas strung all around the edge.”

To make matters worse, there weren’t enough flowers to cover all the dirt in the little garden plot. Even more upsetting, in Haworth’s estimation, was their decision to let one of the florist’s young assistants create a guitar out of hyacinths at the bottom of the shot. “It was so stupid,” she says. “It doesn’t even look like a guitar. It just looks like a kind of bone or something.”

The actual shooting of the cover photo – and the inside- and back-cover group shots of the Beatles – was accomplished in one evening. Neither Blake nor Haworth, however, was happy with the way the cover was reproduced. “The black was terribly heavy,” says Haworth, “so it took away the reality of it. It looked like artwork.”

“Retouching really killed the idea of it,” Blake says. The worst instance, he says, is visible on the right, where Gandhi was eliminated and the little tree above the figure of Diana Dors totally retouched to cover the resulting gap. Another awkward elimination was that of Leo Gorcey, whose image originally appeared in the top row next to that of fellow Bowery Boy Huntz Hall. Like the other living people depicted on the cover, Gorcey had been approached for a photo clearance. “And he had to come out,” says Blake with a sigh. “He asked for a fee.”

Although the completed ‘Sgt. Pepper’ would be hailed (or reviled) as a document of the Beatles’ newly drugenhanced creative powers, Martin insists that hard work and talent were the crucial components of the album. “To my mind,” he says, “it was such an eruption of their natural talents that drugs, if they had anything to do with it, had a damaging effect, rather than a heightening effect. And the drugs that we’re talking about, in any case, were only marijuana and maybe a pep pill. They used to go down to the canteen, where Mal would roll a joint for them, and they’d have a quick smoke and come back rather giggling. That was the extent of it, really.”

The times were exciting enough. The air seemed filled with wonderful ideas, new possibilities, new connections. Model Jenny Boyd, whose sister, Patti, was married to George Harrison, recalls reading a book around that time called Karma and Rebirth, by the noted Buddhist scholar Christmas Humphreys. “There was a passage in it that said, ‘Life goes on within you and without you,’ ” Jenny says. “So” I called Patti up, and I said, ‘Listen to this!’ And I spoke to George and just said, ‘Doesn’t that sort of like sound incredible?’ And that must have inspired him.”

Harrison’s “Within You Without You,” the leadoff track on side two of Sgt. Pepper, was never George Martin’s favorite cut (he later called it, “with all deference to George, a rather dreary song”). But it did present an interesting musical challenge. The instrumentation of the basic track was completely Indian: Harrison himself played sitar and tamboura, and two friends from London’s Indian Music Association played tabla and the violinlike dilruba. So in scoring an accompaniment for a Western-style string section, Martin had to follow the swooping lead of the dilruba player – and exhort his classical players to emulate the dilruba technique as well. The result was a mesmerizing blend of exotic East and strait-laced West.

The final track the Beatles recorded was the Ringo feature, “With a Little Help from My Friends.” “Ringo wasn’t the greatest vocalist in the world,” Martin allows – but his mates were, as always, tremendously supportive. “If you listen to that track, they were singing along with him quite a bit – they did their harmonies at the same time.”

The song completed, all that remained was to mix the record (most of the effort going into mono mixes, since stereo, in Emerick’s recollection, “was still a novelty”) and then to press it. The whole thing had cost about 27,000 pounds (about $75,000 at the time), Martin recalls. In pressing the record, Martin, who wanted to eliminate the traditional three-second gap between tracks, to create a visual aura around the material, ran into a bit of resistance. “There were the die-hards who said people won’t be able to play separate tracks if you do this. But I said what the hell, you know? We were making something that was right.”

As the month of may drew toward a close, Sgt. Pepper was unveiled at a listening party for the press at Brian Epstein’s luxurious London town house, at 13 Chapel Street, near Buckingham Palace. Buoyed by a small sea of champagne, the assembled scribes soaked up the Beatles’ fabulous new sounds as best they could and wondered aloud how Lennon and McCartney, who were also on hand, felt about the BBC’s startling response to the album – it had just announced that “A Day in the Life” would be banned from the air because of the song’s purported “drug references.” McCartney was unconcerned. “We don’t care if they ban our songs,” he said. “It might help the LP.”

On Sunday, May 28th, four days before the official release of Sgt. Pepper, Brian Epstein threw a housewarming party for friends at his new country home, in Sussex. Among those invited was the Beatles’ former publicist, Derek Taylor, a fellow Liverpudlian who had remained close to the group even after relocating to California two years earlier. Taylor took time off from his latest project – publicizing the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival – to fly over from Los Angeles with his wife, Joan, to attend the housewarming and to hear, at last, the completed Sgt. Pepper. He hadn’t counted on being slyly dosed – not to mention double-dosed – with LSD by John Lennon and George Harrison.

“It wasn’t secretly done,” Taylor recalls. “John just said, ‘There’s some acid in that tea.’ And then, ‘Oh . . . he’s just drunk my cup, too, George.’

“But it was very good company to be in,” Taylor says fondly, “sitting around a big fire in the late afternoon in May. I said to John, ‘I’m in some kind of purple jigsaw, man.’ He said, ‘Too much’ -which wasn’t a phrase I knew then. I said, ‘Jesus, there’s scarlet pillars, candelabra, dancing elves….’ “

All that day and the next, wandering with Lennon from Epstein’s house to those of the other Beatles, Taylor drank in the wonders of Sgt. Pepper. Listening to the Beatles’ songs, Taylor had the happy, hopeful thought that there might be “no end to this wonderful stuff.”

“Life did indeed seem sublime,” he says. “Here was this album of love songs – very English; in many ways very unpsychedelic – with a peculiar title, peculiar men in funny uniforms. … It should’ve needed a lot of explanation. It might not have sold. But it was everything that anyone could’ve dreamt of.”

It wasn’t perfect. Its vaunted concept was an entirely superficial one, imposed upon a group of otherwise unrelated songs. Some of the tracks were dopey (“Mr. Kite”) or sopho-moric (“Within You Without You”) or both (“Fixing a Hole”). And the album instigated whole schools of artsy pretension and overproduction, from which rock has yet to fully recover. But Sgt. Pepper also pondered the mysteries of human existence and celebrated its possibilities. And technically it ushered in a new era of studio expressionism, however abused its innovations have been since then. Twenty years ago it hit the pop marketplace with something akin to the force of divine revelation. And if it seems somewhat corny today, well. . . that may say more about the age we now inhabit than the one in which it was created.

“People were very uncynical then,” Taylor says. “Determinedly uncynical. Otherwise, we’d never have been able to buy all the local truths of the time, like ‘All you need is love’ or ‘Baby, you’re a rich man, too.’ I wrote some great sentimental slop back then. If I reprint it now, I have to say, ‘Sorry about this, but that’s how it was then.’ “

And it wasn’t just corny. Even today, says Taylor, “a hard man may be redeemed by his memories of those days. Some of those wicked lawyers who are now yuppies, their eyes will go moist when they think of how they used to be in the Sixties. Not for long, but for a moment or two.”


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